Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Snow White must die - Nele Neuhaus

'Tobias Sartorius' has served 11 years in prison after being convicted of killing 2 girls and has been released as Nele Neuhaus's 'Snow white must die' begins. Though Tobias has always maintained that he is innocent, he also cannot remember anything of the events of the day when he is supposed to have killed the 2 girls. The beginning does remind us of Hakan Nasser's 'The Return' and Tana French's 'In the Woods',  but Neuhaus creates her own path to the murky depths of human behavior. 

A mystery set in a small village could be an easy cop-out, just mention that the village is small, that everyone knows everyone, throw a bit of gossip and you have a small town mystery. But right from the prologue Neuhaus gets the setting, tone and mood perfect. The prologue starts of with a disturbing image. It begins as what seems to be a common enough scenario in crime fiction, where someone seems to be imprisoned and the person who has imprisoned the captive has come to see her. He makes sure that the captive has everything that is needed, including playing music etc. But something seems to be wrong, it doesn't seem to be a case of kidnapping and slowly we realize that whoever had been imprisoned is not alive (and has been probably dead for quite a long time) and the person has been taking care of a corpse. Scary. (Having communicated implicitly that the captive is dead, why did Neuhaus have to state it explicitly at the end of the prologue? A bit more confidence in the reader would do writers a whole lot of good).

The setting of Altenhain village, between 2 mountains, with the woods nearby add to the eerie atmosphere. Add to this the mob mentality of the villagers when Tobias returns to his home, the various characters who all seem to be disturbed by his return (unlike a majority of the villagers who just seem to hate having a murderer in their village,  these characters seem to be  personally involved in events of the past), a young man suffering (apparently) from autism who seems to know more than what he lets on, an curious teenager (who is also an outsider) who is interested in the past, you get a novel (and the village in it) waiting to explode.

Nelehaus maintains the narrative tension for the first half well, with multiple scenarios for what could have happened in the past and several suspects for them. Nelehaus is ambitious in the scope of the novel and even if there are too many threads going around, all them are neatly tied with the core of the novel and do make sense. The motivation of each character is pitch perfect, but the manner in which the investigators (and Nelehaus) arrive at it is not. And that's because, she overextends herself,  gets entangled in her own web of threads and is in such a hurry to resolve every doubt that she had sown in the mind of the reader (and the investigators), that the unraveling of the mystery seems more like the unraveling of her narrative skills. There are the obligatory parallel threads of the personnel life of the lead investigators which is functional. In a way, it is actually a good thing because we are not distracted from the core of the novel, but it could also be a deterrent in case of a series (as opposed to in a standalone mystery) when you are not invested into the main protagonists. 

The novels works more as a powerful human drama than as a taut mystery. A drama of power, and its abuse in various forms. The cunning manifestation of power masquerading as compassion, the power of sexuality and the sexual jealousy it causes. The drama of families broken apart by a tragic event, the tragic event itself acting as a canvas where the villagers can paint their 
pseudo-solicitousness and holier than thou attitude all the while harboring great glee at the opportunity to gossip and badmouth others and reveling in the misfortune of others. The sad state of Tobias's father is one such instance. His once famous restaurant had to be closed due to lack of patronage, his farm had to be mortgaged, house went to seed, got divorced from his wife, he also has to bear the taunts of the villagers. One could argue as to why he should suffer for what his son did and one could rationalize that it was an unfortunate, but unavoidable side-effect of what his son did (or what the villagers thought he did). But towards the end, when one gets to know the truth behind the events,  it is clear that more than righteousness  or moral outrage, it  was the jealousy and spite that the villagers harbored towards the family to Tobias that made them turn against them without any compunction. 

This is also about how being a complicit bystander, where one chooses to not do/to ignore/turn the other way,  causes as much heartburn as what one actually does. And it is the power and depth of this human drama, that makes one hope that Neuhaus can provide us more tighter mysteries without compromising on the human core.

As is the case in the translation of most authors, it looks like Nele Neuhaus's books are being translated out of order. This seems to her 7th book (as per one of her interviews) and it is not clear whether her earlier works were standalone novels or if they too had the detectives  Pia and Oliver in them. Early on in this novel, there is a reference to an earlier investigation. If that investigation is indeed an earlier novel in this series, the reference here could work as a kind of dampener as one of the suspects is mentioned as being not being innocent. However, It must be said that this novel looks (and reads) like the first of a series, so the reference mentioned here may have no major impact.


  1. Interesting review of what sounds an unusual book. I'm intrigued enough to read it.

  2. Worked more as a human drama than as a mystery for me. Would be engrossing enough if you do not expect too much from the thrill/suspense/intelligent resolution of crime parts.